MANILA, Philippines (AP) — At least nine people were killed Tuesday in a gunbattle between Philippine forces and suspected Abu Sayyaf militants on a central resort island, far from the extremists’ southern jungle bases and in a region where the U.S. government has warned that the gunmen may be plotting kidnappings, officials said.
Military officials said at least five gunmen, three soldiers and a policeman had died in the ongoing gunbattle in a village in the coastal town of Inabanga in Bohol province. The island province is known for its beach resorts and wildlife and lies near Cebu province, a bustling commercial and tourism hub.
Sporadic firefights continued by nightfall in Inabanga’s Napo village and two outlying villages, where residents have fled to safety. Commando troops flew to Bohol to reinforce government forces, officials said.
National police chief Director General Ronald dela Rosa said troops and policemen attacked the gunmen early Tuesday in Inabanga, where the gunmen had arrived aboard three boats. The gunmen took cover in three houses as the firefight broke out.
Government forces seized control of two of the houses, and the rest of the gunmen either were in the third house or had fled the area, dela Rosa told reporters.
If it is proven that the gunmen were from the Abu Sayyaf, it may be the group’s first known attempt to carry out ransom kidnappings deep in the heartland of the central Philippines, far from its jungle lairs in the southern provinces of Sulu and Basilan.
Bohol island, where one of the world’s smallest primates, called tarsiers, are found, drawing many tourists, lies about 640 kilometers (397 miles) southeast of Manila. Bohol is about an hour away by boat from Cebu province, across the busy Cebu Strait, which is crisscrossed daily by ferries, cargo ships and fishing vessels.
Abu Sayyaf militants have crossed the sea border with Malaysia on powerful speedboats and kidnapped scores of foreign tourists in past years. In 2001, they sailed as far as western Palawan province, where they seized 20 people, including three Americans, from a resort.
“If we were not able to monitor this and engage them with our government forces, it’s a cause for alarm if they were able to carry out kidnappings,” dela Rosa said.
Military chief of staff Gen. Eduardo Ano told The Associated Press that military intelligence operatives had been trying to track down the movements of the suspected militants, who first traveled from Sulu to southern Zamboanga peninsula. Intelligence later indicated the gunmen landed ashore in Inabanga, prompting military and police officials to deploy their forces, he said.
The gunmen traveled on board motor boats along a river to Inabanga’s Napo village, where government forces assaulted them, military spokesman Col. Edgard Arevalo said, adding that troops recovered four rifles and a homemade bomb from the slain gunmen.
Two military officials, citing intelligence, said the suspected militants who traveled to Bohol were under Abu Sayyaf militant Moammar Askali, who uses the nom de guerre Abu Rami. It was not immediately clear if Askali, who has been implicated in a number of high-profile ransom kidnappings, was among the slain militants, according to the officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not allowed to discuss the matter publicly.
The U.S. Embassy in Manila recently advised Americans to take precautions amid “unsubstantiated yet credible information” of possible kidnappings by terrorists in Bohol, nearby Cebu province and other central areas.
The United States and the Philippines have separately blacklisted the Abu Sayyaf as a terrorist organization for bombings, kidnappings for ransom and beheadings. Some Abu Sayyaf commanders have pledged allegiance to the Islamic State group.
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has ordered troops to destroy the extremists in Sulu and in outlying island provinces, and has threatened to declare martial law in the country’s south if the threat posed by the Abu Sayyaf and other extremist groups aligned with the Islamic State group gets out of control.
Although the Abu Sayyaf militants have been weakened by years of battle setbacks, they came back to international attention when they separately beheaded two Canadians last year and a German hostage earlier this year after ransom deadlines lapsed. The militants are still holding at least 29 captives in Sulu’s jungles, many of them foreign tugboat and cargo ship crewmen seized at the sea border between the southern Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia.